Being young in Ukraine: “Hamlet is a kind of filter”

To fight or not to fight? The film “The Hamlet Syndrome” tells about the formation and conflicts of young people in Ukraine.

Three people on a stage

They rehearse “Hamlet” and process their trauma in “The Hamlet Syndrome” Photo: Real Fiction

taz: Ms. Niewiera, Mr. Rosołowski, your documentary “The Hamlet Syndrome” describes the effects of the war on the younger generation in Ukraine. They are dedicated to the events of the Maidan revolution and the hostilities since 2014 and show how the events are processed by young people in the form of a play. How did your joint project come about?

Elwira Niewiera: Since the Maidan revolution we had closely observed the events in the Ukraine. We were already fascinated by the young generation, the first to be born in a free and independent Ukraine. First they mounted the barricades, and then when war broke out in eastern Ukraine, they felt obliged to fight for their country. This avalanche of brutal experiences had taken a heavy toll on her psyche. We wanted to tell about them and the high price they pay for their commitment.

Piotr Rosolowski: We were busy at the time of the Maidan events, the archival footage from the 20’s and 30’s of our film “The Prince and the Dybbuk” to cut. When we saw the pictures of the revolution, we had the immediate impression that something drastic and important was happening here. In 2015 we managed to travel to Ukraine and experienced the great need of the people to tell their stories. Many had experienced the indescribable and wanted to share their experiences with us. In 2018 we made the first concrete preparations for the film.

The production of your film took a decisive turn when the events of February 24, 2022 hit Ukraine. At what point in your work were you at the time?

Niewiera: For us, on February 24th, the world collapsed. When we started working on the film, we wanted to be on the ongoing war in Ukraine since 2014 to draw attention. In the midst of post-production, the full-scale Russian invasion happened. We considered going back to the country and filming. However, it quickly became clear that we had to react differently. Three of our protagonists immediately found themselves in the midst of war. When their military base was bombed on the first day, they stood in the forest in trainers and rockets flew overhead. We were given a long list of equipment needed. We therefore decided to transport relief supplies directly to their battalions. We still do that today.

Rosolowski: We stopped working during post-production because we just didn’t know what to do. The last images of Ukraine in our film are from autumn 2021. I think that makes it an important contemporary document of the events before the Russian invasion. When you see the recordings of our five protagonists, you always have in mind what is to come. And it shows how the Russian invasion reactivates their trauma. Today millions of Ukrainians are affected.

In the course of the film, five protagonists get to know each other on a theater stage in Kyiv. We experience the rehearsals for a Ukrainian interpretation of Hamlet. What about the Shakespeare material is relevant for you and for Ukraine as a whole?

Rosolowski: Our intention was to solve Hamlet’s dilemma – to be or not to be? – to connect with that of the young Ukrainian generation. The life of Hamlet – a young man in his twenties – collides with a brutal power struggle in his homeland. A parallel can be seen here with the dilemmas of the Ukrainian Maidan generation.

Niewiera: For us, Hamlet is a kind of filter that we put on the current problems of the young Ukrainian generation in order to examine certain dilemmas such as “to fight or not to fight?”, “to be or not to be?”. Three of our protagonists experienced all the horrors of war first hand and for many years could not come to terms with the consequences of their trauma.

The directors and screenwriters Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski both live in Berlin. Their joint documentary “Domino Effect” (2014) ran at more than 50 festivals, including IDFA and MoMa Doc Fortnight, and won the Golden Dove at the DOK Leipzig festival. They received the Lion for Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival in 2017 for their documentary The Prince and the Dybbuk. Rosołowski also works as a cameraman.

The characters that accompany you in your film come from very different social backgrounds; they differentiate more than they unite. What criteria did you use to select them for the film? And what cinematic methods are used to present them?

Niewiera: Already while we were looking for protagonists in Ukraine, it was clear to us that we didn’t want to show interviews with our main characters, but rather a joint process – the theater rehearsals. The stage process enabled a deeper kind of reflection, and also a processing of the war experiences that three of our protagonists had at the front. In total we met around 80 people in front of the film. We quickly realized that many of them were out of the question for filming – their emotional wounds seemed too open to us. One of the criteria became that the participants had undergone therapy. The process of retrieving memories in the film itself has a therapeutic aspect – but that wasn’t the main focus. There’s something liberating about being able to filter events through the character of Hamlet.

Sometimes there are violent conflicts in the group. Above all, the issue of patriotism and the Ukrainian flag as a symbol plays a role. The different perceptions of the soldiers and non-combatants in the group are interesting.

Rosolowski: Some conflicts were almost inevitable. However, the stage situation offered space for the different perspectives and made it possible to resolve the conflict. The best example: Rodion, LGBTQ, from Donetsk and Slavik, who fought in the army. As different as the two are, they become friends on stage. Or the actress Oxana. She is known in Ukraine for her critical theater. Her statements caused major conflicts in the group. But what is difficult in society is possible on stage: to come to a common denominator despite all the differences.

You both live in Berlin and therefore look at the war from a German perspective. What do you find remarkable about the German perspective on Ukraine and Eastern Europe? And has the view changed?

Niewiera: The German perspective was one of the main reasons for us to make the film. The acts of war since 2014 have been forgotten by the German public or they were not even aware of them. During that time, Germany doubled its purchases of oil and gas from Russia and made itself dependent on Putin. That’s why he could do whatever he wanted.

Rosolowski: In Germany I keep hearing that there must be peace at any price. For me, however, this shows above all the lack of interest in the conflicts in Eastern Europe. There was already too little attention during the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk. Demanding peace at all costs is an oversimplification and does not do justice to the reality on the ground.

Niewiera: Roman, one of our protagonists, who is stationed in Bachmut at the moment, said the following sentence to me, which I will not forget: “For terrible things to happen, it only takes the indifference of very many good people” – I think we can all do that feel addressed.

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